Interview with Brian Parkes, People & Culture Director, Queen’s University Belfast

Posted in : HR Interview Series on 6 March 2019
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Brian Parkes Queen's University Belfast

Name: Brian Parkes

Position & Organisation: People & Culture Director, Queen’s University Belfast

Number of Employees: 3,400

Time in Post: 2 years+

Previous Job: People & Culture Director, CurrencyFair.

Tell us about your business in a sentence

Queen’s University is a member of the prestigious research-intensive Russell Group.  We employ almost 3,500 people locally and contribute almost £1billion to the UK economy in terms of our economic impact.

What was your first ever job?

My first paid job was working in the kitchen of a local Chinese restaurant in Enniskillen.  It started a lifelong love of cooking and a lifelong hatred of peeling onions.

What are the key challenges you face in your role?

I joined on the back of a fairly honest set of staff survey results which told us we needed to work on our culture, and we are with our new People & Culture strategy.  We’re focusing on co-creating an employee experience with our people.  Co-creation is key, not top-down edicts which was the perception internally so we’re focused very heavily on changing that perception.  Talent and career development for academics specifically is also a key priority, although we’re making sure we provide support for all staff.  They create the product which defines what Queen’s is.

What keeps you going when things get tough?

I have some very funny people who I work with and that does keep me going. A sense of humour at work is important.  I know a lot of HR folk with a dark sense of humour – it must be the job!  Recognition is obviously important as well.  People saying ‘thanks for that’ does make a difference doesn’t it?  We’re more inclined to complain I think, but we all need to work harder at saying thanks to each other – it does help, and it doesn’t cost anything.

If you could do any job in the world, what would it be?

I’m not sure the job exists – but it would be responsible for normalising Northern Irish society – integrated education, politics that work, greater focus on policy etc. That would be a great job! Failing that, I’d settle for owning a small seafood shack on a beach somewhere, with a large selection of rum.

Who do you most admire in business locally and/or internationally? Why?

Edgar Schein has been my ‘go to’ person for years.  He is a professor at MIT and his research on leaders and how their behaviour impact corporate culture is a bit of a mantra for me.  Also, Nancy Kline – if you have time, read her book – Time To Think.  It’s a reminder of whats important in life.

How do you unwind after a tough week?

There is a routine here – Friday nights are takeaway and Netflix on the couch with my wife and kids. Nothing gets in the way of that, ever. The rest of the weekend are 100% family focused.  Moving back to NI having been away for over 20 years was a big move.  It was about putting family before a very good private sector career.  I’m glad I did that and whilst I’m still adjusting to NI life, my weekends are family focused and that’s the way I like to unwind, and live.

What are the key characteristics of your top performing employees?

I don’t buy into the theories that say you can define or categorise what top performers look like….they’re all contradictory anyway so lack credibility for me.  Hire people on attitude and then develop them in the role, and help them develop – don’t just ignore them.  Ultimately people will perform better if they feel like it – you cant force it.  Iike any relationship – the more you feel you’re getting out of it, the more likely you are to work harder for it, and to stick around.  Work is the same.  That’s why we focus on employee experience as an ongoing thing at Queens – not just looking at periodic staff survey results.  Treat your staff like adults, show them you respect them, and 99% will return the favour. I think that’s part of the pathway to higher organisational performance.

What skills are essential for a top career in HR and will these still be the same in 5 years time?

 In terms of skills, Id say consulting, analytics/analysis and stakeholder management are important, and increasingly so.  Organisational systems are complex and when you overlay people and politics onto them they can become challenging environments to find solutions in.  When I got my first HRD role an old mentor told me that I’d spend most of my time managing relationships, not doing technical HR work.  She was an excellent mentor

How did you gain an understanding of a more strategic level of HR?

For me it was when I moved into Organisational Development (OD) – it gave me a more systemic and strategic  lense to look at organisations though.  I remember dropping out of my CIPD course as I felt it was very theoretical and I couldn’t see how I could apply it at work – that drove the move towards OD for me which I found much more helpful, and I’m glad the CIPD are now looking at OD more than before as a key discipline.   I only gained FCIPD status when I moved back to NI as it is such a big thing here and I was told I would need it, and definitely essential for anyone who wants a HR career in Northern Ireland.

What will be the key skills for leading HR practitioners in 5 years’ time?

The most important one is the same as its ever been – the ability to align a people & culture strategy to an organisational one.  I don’t mean to sound trite with this – strategy isn’t a static process – it should evolve always, and so should the enabling strategies around it like the People focused ones so this is not an easy ask.   The pace at which everything changes now is so fast, I would say the ability to listen and change what you’re doing in response to external pressures will become increasingly important, and not just for HR folk.  Analytics is already part of HR life and I have some great guys at Queens who are helping me with this.

What piece of advice would you give to a person trying to reach your position?

Don’t be afraid to take risks.  Stand up for what you believe in but be able to back yourself, especially if you want other people to back you.

* Queen's University Belfast have been shortlisted in the Best Race Initiative, Best LGBT Initiative and Individual Diversity Champion categories at this year’s Equality and Diversity Awards & Gala on Friday 5th April 2019.


This article is correct at 06/03/2019

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